Slow progress for green landscape certification

Buildings and properties are in the spotlight with today’s push to reduce environmental impacts. A pioneering certification system to quantify sustainability is quickly gaining profile and acceptance, yet landscapes are not very important in its rating system — a huge irony, since plants are oxygen-producers and intelligent landscape design can offer big sustainability benefits.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system of measuring a building’s sustainability began in the U.S. in 1998, and came to Canada as an organized program in 2004. Today the LEED system is spreading throughout commercial and private sectors.

Despite importance put on sustainable construction and LEED, many in the landscape trades don’t fully understand the system. Not surprising, since the LEED system does not give credit for many of landscaping’s benefits.

Quantifying sustainability

The Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) provides recognition to qualifying LEED projects. The process includes a point-based system that covers six areas: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality and innovation and design process. Green features of a LEED-certified building may include high efficiency air-handling and lighting systems, day-lighting, water conservation, rainwater harvesting for landscape irrigation and toilet flushing, green roofs, green power, green housekeeping, and more sustainable materials such as those that are rapidly renewable, contain recycled content or are sourced locally. Only two of the six areas, sustainable sites and water efficiency, involve landscapes.

There is growing awareness that more landscaping points are needed in the system. “LEED is coming from a building standpoint and isn’t capturing the full discipline of landscape architecture,” says Ruedi Hofer, principal of PMA Landscape Architects in Toronto. “I think there ought to be a slightly different scale and scope to encompass landscape architecture.”

Many not aware

Derek Satnik is a member of the CaGBC’s real estate committee and LEED for homes committee, and is a director at the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association (OSEA). When asked if LEED had relevance in the day-to-day operations of landscapers, Satnik said, “LEED standards provide a great opportunity to become involved in planting native plants, improving irrigation systems, etc.” He went on to say that in his experience many times contractors want to maintain the tried-and-true, or they are not familiar with sustainability issues. Heike Stippler of Heike Designs in Whistler, B.C. agrees with Satnik on awareness of sustainable practices by landscape contractors. A landscape de-signer with some hands-on experience in installation, construction and maintenance, Stippler says she has been working to educate the contractors with whom she works. “I find many are not aware, or do not care as much about environmental standards, yet.” She notes that this is especially true with installation/construction contractors who often find it hard to change existing practices. James Knaut of Aura Landscapers in Calgary, Alta., said he didn’t really know how LEED standards applied to landscaping. “I would love to have more information about it.”

Bruce Hunter, CHT, CLD, CLP, of Hunter Landscape Design in Surrey, B.C., says, “I know of the LEED system used for construction, but I am not very well versed in details of the system. I could see a benefit to landscapers to use a system that measures their environmental practices, as well as a system that would provide the ability to quantify the benefit to the environment from the installation of new landscapes. Then designers and contractors could use the data to inform their customers about the real benefits of having the work done.”

Steve Bolton of Economy Landscape Contractors in Edmonton, Alta., said LEED standards have played a part in his business. “There have been issues of irrigation systems being cancelled. I think it was because of the extensive review of runoff.”

Clive Russell of Inside and Out Garden Design in Toronto, Ont., says, “Although we do not apply the LEED system directly in our work, we are aware of the principles and try to incorporate as many aspects of sustainability into our garden designs as we can. We try to use hardy, plant materials that need little water to fit the client’s demands for low maintenance, and we locate shade trees, trellises or pergolas and vines to shield the house as well as outdoor areas from summer sun, but to allow the winter sun in.” The Toronto contractor wants to learn more about LEED and how it applies to landscape design, installation and maintenance.

Who should promote LEED?

The responsibility to promote the LEED system falls on landscape architects and designers, says Satnik. He notes that most customers want a sustainable home, but they have no idea what it means and they need to be informed about the benefits of using the system. He adds most people do not know what LEED is about.

Stippler echoes Satnik’s opinion, “The awareness of LEED is not quite there yet, because many contractors and companies are not association members. It is here that they can find out more information about the program.” She felt that information and examples are needed to show that LEED standards will not hurt a company’s bottom line. “What exactly is LEED? What comes with it, and what does it mean, etc.? Awareness, education, information for contractors and customers are needed,” said Stippler.

The Ontario Association of Landscape Architects carried out an in-depth survey of five landscape architects and designers. In the survey, David Sisam, founding member of Montgomery Sisam Architects in Toronto, is quoted as saying, “It’s good for business to get everyone more knowledge-able about sustainable design and have the ability to make judgments about issues related to LEED.”

Steve Carpenter is founder and president of Enermodal Engineering, a Kitchener-based engineering firm that specializes in design of energy-efficient and sustainable buildings. “LEED sets a standard that the client, consultants and everyone can understand. Otherwise, anyone can say they are ‘green’ designers and there is no benchmark for that,” says Carpenter.

Heike Stippler agrees. “Good standards are important, as otherwise everyone claims to be on that boat without implementing the same practices. I personally try to design with as many native plants as possible, push for using less water and smart irrigation, keeping as much material, plants, etc., on site, recycle, not use pesticides, herbicides,or other chemicals. I try to think about smarter practices and try to implement them with the contractors I use.”

Change is coming

Nancy Grenier, CaGBC’s manager of marketing and communications, says the LEED system is a growing and evolving program that reacts to changing demands in the marketplace. She noted the new rating systems are presently in the works. She pointed out that by end of 2008, the CaGBC aims to introduce LEED Canada for Homes that will apply to new home construction. Next will be a system to address existing homes. “We believe the LEED rating system will be the most complete green building program in Canada. When it’s fully launched into the market, the next generation of LEED Canada will be the most complete and inclusive green building rating system on the market, and the only tool that measures actual building performance,” states the CaGBC. A shift has begun in the old attitude that a landscape’s purpose is to provide merely aesthetic value. The new thinking says landscapes can be created to improve the environment, and the LEED program is poised to acknowledge landscape’s role in making our properties greener, environmentally as well as aesthetically.